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Amundsen Orchestra Hits High Note, Plays It Forward

By Patty Wetli | February 20, 2013 11:41am

LINCOLN SQUARE — The day before their much-anticipated joint concert with the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra, members of Amundsen High School's string ensemble weren't furiously practicing for their high-profile gig.

They were teaching students at McPherson Elementary how to hold a violin bow.

"What we're doing here is planting seeds," said Sean Reidy, Amundsen's orchestra director, who organized the weekly music lessons with Marianne Turk, McPherson's International Baccalaureate coordinator.

Reidy looked on Tuesday afternoon, stepping in as needed, while nine of his students worked in  groups of two or three with 15 to 20 of the grade schoolers. The teens demonstrated proper hand positions, how to draw the bow across the strings, and generally helped their pupils produce surprisingly melodious notes.

"They get a kick out of it," Reidy said of the teens. "Maybe some of these kids haven't had a chance to be leaders. It gives them confidence, it gives them pride."

Since joining the staff at Amundsen five years ago, Reidy has sought out such opportunities to expand the horizons not only of his own students but those in younger grades.

"I just noticed the huge disparity between the music program I grew up with" and Chicago Public Schools, said the Elmhurst native.

Starting in fourth grade "every [suburban] school had band, orchestra and choir, fully funded to the nines," said Reidy.

By contrast, he estimates that for students at Amundsen, freshman year orchestra is the "first formal music 99.9 percent of them have had." 

That deficit prompted Reidy to develop the high school-to-grade school collaboration. He received $4,000 from CPS's Service Learning office to purchase child-sized string instruments for the youngsters, and then asked for volunteer teachers from his own orchestra.

Emina Sisic, a sophomore at Amundsen, answered the call.

If anyone understands the spell an introduction to music lessons can cast, it would be Sisic. She wound up in orchestra her ninth grade year solely due to a scheduling error.

"I wanted to transfer out," she said.

Instead, she fell in love with the cello, a passion she's now sharing with fourth- and fifth-graders at McPherson.

"If I had the opportunity to play when I was younger, I would have tried for CYSO," said Sisic.

The collaboration between Amundsen and the CYSO is meant to encourage more students like Sisic, no matter their lack of training, to audition for the youth orchestra, which operates five ensembles for budding musicians ages 7 through 18.

"A lot of band directors have no idea what we have to offer," said Malika Coletta, CYSO education coordinator. "Their students are good enough."

A year ago, Coletta embarked on a recruiting initiative that took her to high schools throughout CPS.

"I ended up meeting Sean Reidy and he really stuck out in my mind," she recalled.

It was Reidy's enthusiam, coupled with the scrappy nature of Amundsen's orchestra (currently strings-only), that tipped the scales in the school's favor when it came time for CYSO to select a partner for its first-ever joint concert with a CPS neighborhood school.

"I thought no way in hell" we'd get it, said Reidy, who was convinced the honor would go to Northside College Prep or another selective enrollment school.

When Coletta called with the good news, his response was, "Oh, my God, are you kidding me?"

In preparation for the concert, Amundsen's orchestra members recently attended a clinic at CYSO's South Michigan Avenue facilities.

"It shows them the potential," said Reidy, who noted that the exposure to a higher level of instruction has already encouraged three of his charges to express a desire to audition for CYSO.

On Wednesday, CYSO will return the favor, bringing its high school strings ensemble to Amundsen's stage for the concert performance.

"It's a huge deal. It's a great chance for the community to see what's going on at Amundsen," said Reidy, who hopes to pack the school's auditorium.

"We're going to have 76 kids on stage. You want them to look out and see 700 faces."

Those 76 musicians will include second violinist Melisa Flores, a senior at Amundsen.

Flores has been intrigued by the violin for as long as she can remember but only started playing her junior year.

"There was no opportunity. We didn't have lessons," she said of her grammar school days. "Yeah, definitely, if I had a chance I would have."

A year and a half ago, "I didn't know how to hold a bow," she said. Now she's a member of CPS's all-city orchestra and is eager to teach others.

In three years, Reidy envisions orchestra graduates like Flores returning to their alma mater and passing on their musical knowledge to current Amundsen students, who will in turn share their experience with elementary students.

"The idea of what this [program] will look like in 10 years — this school [McPherson] will have an orchestra of its own and we will have laid the groundwork," he said.

"The karma is wonderful."

The Amundsen-CYSO concert is scheduled for Feb. 20, 7 p.m., at Amundsen High School, 5110 N. Damen Ave. A $4 donation is suggested, with proceeds to benefit Amundsen's music program.